Understanding Emotional Infidelity

Last updated: Oct 13, 2022

“This is how dishonesty and betrayal started, not in big lies but in small secrets.” Amy Tan

One of my clients had recently learned of her husband engaging in emotional infidelity with a woman he worked alongside each day. She had been able to move past it by telling herself: It was only emotional; at least they never had sex.

One day later, I had a different client whose husband had cheated on her but it was purely physical. There was no emotional connection between them. She had made peace with it because it was only sex, void of emotion.

Neither of these women are wrong for feeling how they do. You cannot argue with someone’s feelings or their experience. It’s just interesting to me how we do these mental and emotional gymnastics to make sense of the most painful moments of our lives.

I do, however, think it’s important to be honest with yourself about what is true. Emotional infidelity is simply the prequel to a physical affair. No grown adult is spending time with someone they’re attracted to in secret from their spouse so they can sharpen their backgammon skills. If it hadn’t yet become a physical affair, it was well on its way. So emotional infidelity matters.


At the start of emotional infidelity, we create an attachment to that other person by sharing pieces of our hearts with one another. We share our dreams, desires, what’s working and what’s not working in our lives. There’s intimacy that often gets created, a trust and also a relationship. It starts out as friends, so we tell ourselves it’s a harmless friendship. That other person will always show us exactly what is missing in our marriages. Often they’ll be the polar opposite of the spouse we have at home.

Although most don’t do so at this point, there’s still an opportunity to turn back before any more damage is done. You could have a conversation with your spouse that sounds something like: I have found myself drawn to someone else and that scares me. I wanted to be honest about this so that we can understand what’s missing between us that I am apparently longing for and create a more loving, intimate relationship together. Although scary to say or hear those words, almost any partner would appreciate that level of honesty and emotional maturity.

If the emotional infidelity continues, our imaginations take over and we begin to envision what it would be like to be with that person. Our imagination is a powerful thing, creating desired scenarios in our minds. This is the danger zone for a marriage and a very slippery slope into a physical relationship for two grown adults.


Infidelity doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have sex with someone else. If you’re spending time in secret with someone else, fantasizing about them, or deleting messages, that is betrayal. It’s just referred to as emotional infidelity and not a physical affair…so far.

I heard a definition of betrayal that I had not heard before and would love to know your thoughts about it: Betrayal is anything done is secret from your partner. That’s a broad definition…Is it too broad? What do you think? Shoot me a comment and let me know your thoughts…

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